Baikal: A Family Story

A family dynasty of researchers has collected an unparalleled trove of geophysical and biological data from the depths of Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia. This grand research project began about 1946, when Mikhail Kozhov, director of the Baikal Biological Station, set out from the lakeshore community known as Bolshie Koty (Big Cats) to measure water temperature, check water clarity using a spinning secchi disk, and gather samples of invertebrate life from depths as great as nearly a half mile. Every week or so, Kozhov would gather data, by boat in summer, on foot across the ice in winter to a shed with a hole bored through the thick ice. In subsequent years, Kozhov’s daugher, Olga M. Kozhova, and granddaughter, Lyubov Izmestyeva, joined him at the Baikal field station.

Eugene Silow is part of this research dynasty. Izmestyeva’s step-brother and UNESCO Chair of Water Resources at the Irkutsk State University, he has a unique perspective on the scientific legacy these dedicated individuals have created. His edited comments about the family’s work follow.

Of course, I did not know Mikhail Kozhov (he died when I was 6 years old), but I excellently knew Olga Kozhova, who was my teacher in aquatic ecology and limnology and elder friend of mine. Since 1985, when I started work at the Institute of Biology, I worked with Lyubov Izmestyeva under Kozhova’s supervision. We researched in Africa (Great African lakes), in Germany, at great Siberian reservoirs and, of course, at Lake Baikal. 

Nobody knows what induced in Mikhail Kozhov’s mind such an idea as Baikal monitoring. There were no monitoring works in his time. (Monitoring programs for Lake Geneva and Lake Michigan, for example, started in the 1950s with very low-resolution sampling—once a month or two). Kozhov’s initial plan was to estimate the food resources for Baikalian fishes, represented by the lake’s zooplankton. But he realized that it is necessary to assess the food resources for zooplankton as well; so he included phytoplankton sampling in his schedule.  

He assigned very high resolution to his monitoring program (one sampling every seven to 10 days and samples from the depth of 500, 250, 200, 150, 100, 50, 25, 15, 10, 5 and 0 meters). Additionally he suspected it was necessary to make a snapshot of the entire lake every year and started circum-Baikal expeditions, sampling in late August and early September at 69 fixed locations.

In the early 1950s he began to realize these data were valuable not only to estimated fishery resources, but also to monitor lake ecosystem functioning. He began to analyze the data to try to understand how the Lake Baikal ecosystem functions as a whole. Thus he became one of the first ecologists in the world (together with the American Eugene Odum). 

In the 1950s Kozhov decided these observations were necessary both for the Baikal studies and for fundamental ecology. Baikal lake monitoring became the main part of the Institute of Biology’s mission. In the 1960s he published Lake Baikal and Its Life (first published in English in 1963), describing the behavior of the Lake Baikal ecosystem. It was one of the first books on system ecology applied to one natural object.

His daughter, Professor Olga Kozhova, inherited the system of lake observations. If her father realized the necessity of special interdisciplinary complex science devoted to the study of Lake Baikal, Kozhova created the main body of this science. She has analyzed the main trends of the ecosystem from 1945 to the 1980s. She created the Lake Baikal database on “big computers” (there were no PCs in her time). Also, she initiated the first attempts to create mathematical models of the lake ecosystem. Simultaneously, she started to use the data stored as the basis for legislation. The first edition of the “law for the protection of Lake Baikal” was founded on the data she compiled. 

At this time, Kozhov’s granddauther Lyubov Izmestyeva and I joined the Lake Baikal research program. Lyubov started to analyze some new parameters of the lake functioning (chlorophyll content and primary production) and I started to analyze the interaction of the lake ecosystem with the main pollutants of the lake watershed basin. We summarized the data on the lake and in 1998 published a new book, Lake Baikal: Evolution and Biodiversity

Since Professor Kozhova died in 2002, Professor Ismestyeva and I have analyzed trends in the lake ecosystem, and we have discovered the coherence of these changes with the global changes observed in other lakes. Now, the database for Lake Baikal is accompanied by databases for meteorological parameters, for bacterial data, for waterfowl and such. The result of three generations of the Kozhov family is now a powerful instrument for the analyses of the lake ecosystem structure and dynamics. We see the changes in the ecosystem are what we predicted in the early 1990s due to chemical pollution. But they can be also explained by climate change. So now we have a task to distinguish pollution-induced changes from those due to climate change.

The sampling started by Mikhail Kozhov continues. We now realize that this sampling is the most valuable work performed by our Institute. I'm afraid we'll continue to do it even if there is no longer state support of the program. We simply do our observation work, very necessary for all of humankind.

GREG BREINING writes about travel, science and nature for Momentum, the New York Times, and many other publications.

Kozhov Family

Baikal Biological Station

Baikal biological station – is among the oldest research institutions of Eastern Siberia, and the oldest at the lake Baikal. It was founded in 1916, joined to the Irkutsk University in 1921, and, with the foundation of Biology and Geography Research Institute in 1923 became its research division. Now it is functions as Baikal biological station of Research Institute of Biology at Irkutsk State University. View the website

Lake Baikal